NEW YORK — Elementary school teacher Ramona Roman has a master's degree and earns $70,000 a year, but she's barely making it in New York City.
"I think I make a good salary, but it's so hard living here — I can't get a decent apartment with the money I make. You also need to eat! You need to feed your kids!" said the 52-year-old teacher, who supports two children and her mother.
Over the years, teachers in Roman's predicament have fled the city's red-hot real estate market looking for affordable housing. They may soon have a new option — Roman plans to apply to live in a 234-unit housing project being developed specifically for educators.
The project, backed with $28 million from the New York City Teachers' Retirement System, could become a model in other cities where soaring rents are forcing out essential workers like teachers, police and firefighters, observers say.
In New York, about 4,000 teachers moved out of the city last year, says Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 150,000 active and retired city public school educators.
"What developer is willing to construct affordable housing?" she said.
A New York teacher's salary starts at about $42,000, and at more than $2,000 a month, the average rent for even a studio apartment in the city eats up over half of it.
In the Bronx, where construction on the complex is expect to start later this fall, rents between $800 to $900 are considered affordable.
The buildings will add to the supply of similarly priced apartments. Rents in the two buildings will range from $806 a month for a studio to $1,412 for a three-bedroom apartment.
The apartments will be open to teachers in public, private, parochial and charter schools, as well as administrators.
To be eligible for a lottery for an apartment, applicants cannot earn more than 110 percent of the area median income, which is $70,900 for a family of four and $49,630 for an individual.
"As a prototype of housing for people who are essential to the functioning of a city, it's quite important," said Richard Plunz, a Columbia University architecture professor.
Across the nation, finding affordable housing is a challenge for teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers and other working- and middle-class people who want to live in the communities they serve.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has offered housing bonuses of up to $14,600 to incoming teachers.
In the tradition of unions taking care of their own, Weingarten, the union chief, approached the city's Housing Development Corp. about a year ago.
Under the deal they forged, the pension fund bought the $28 million worth of bonds from the corporation, which also provided $20 million in below-market rate loans for the project. The Atlantic Development Group is building it.
The New York-based construction company, which specializes in affordable housing, got a 1 percent mortgage for the project financed with the sale of the bonds to the pension fund.
The project "revisits how housing was provided in the city for the working population from the 1920s to the 1960s," Plunz said.
Plunz referred to such huge, union-backed housing complexes as Electchester in Queens, which was erected in 1949 for electrical workers by Local 3 of their union.
The Amalgamated apartments in the Bronx, one of the oldest housing cooperatives in the United States with more than 4,000 apartments, were built by several garments workers' unions starting in the 1920s.
Of course, investing pension fund money in real estate is not new.
The nation's largest pension funds, CalSTRS and CalPERS in California, have real-estate investments worth billions and are helping teachers buy or build properties for individuals and families.
The city's retirement system, with a $52 billion portfolio, also has tens of millions of dollars of real-estate investments. But none of those investments is profession-specific rental housing like the Bronx apartments.
They will be only a drop in the bucket for the nation's largest school system, whose teacher force of 80,000 serves a student body of 1.1 million, but it is a start.
John Crotty, an executive of a public housing finance group at the J.P. Morgan Chase bank, said he's looking to create other projects around the country using public pension funds for urban revitalization modeled on the Bronx experiment.
The number of working people in America who are paying 50 percent or more for their housing is growing "to unsustainable numbers," said Crotty.
The ideal ratio is to spend no more than about 30 percent of a salary on housing. "This affordability crisis exists nationally and we figured out a solution," Crotty said.